Saturday, May 24, 2014

San Antonio - Redux!

24th May 1809 – The Rematch!

In an unexpected twist of fate (or perhaps a parallel universe!) and by popular request, the same British and French forces again clashed again at San Antonio, just three weeks later! On this occasion Wellesley was clearly back on his usual form, and Napoleon could not quite match his previous performance - after a hard-fought and hugely enjoyable game the British finally prevailed.

The Second Battle of San Antonio!
This time, Wellesley moved with alacrity to seize Spinoza and secure the east bridge. At the same time however, Napoleon sent his veteran Light Brigade dashing up the road and across country towards the river. Their Hussar regiment galloped into San Antonio and waited nervously for their infantry to catch up – but they were safe for the moment, the British cavalry Brigade had deployed on the right flank and in turn moved smartly around the south-eastern massif, heading for the easily-fordable upper reaches of the D’Oro. 

To secure his left against this, Napoleon deployed both his heavy 12pdr batteries onto the hill north of the ravine; they had a fine field of fire out towards San Antonio and Spinoza, and prevented a deep cavalry strike around the eastern end of the ravine. Léger battalions moved into the woods south of the ravine, the vineyards beside San Antonio and crossed the river to occupy the dense wood in the centre.

The British toehold in Spinoza looking fragile
 As these marched forward, Napoleon sent his other strong infantry brigade forward in the centre, and held his weaker, mainly raw 3rd Brigade in reserve. Wellesley sent his veteran Highlanders forward to secure San Truco and ordered his 3rd Brigade on a wide outflanking march to the west, which it carried through without hesitation over the course of the next few hours.

The Long March begins...
An early British attempt to cross the river in the centre before the French could move up in force was foiled by the veteran Light Cavalry in San Antonio, who moved into the vineyards and carefully controlled the centre for the next few hours. They surprised the first British battalion as it struggled up the banks in disorder, charging and sending it running back with heavy casualties.

Undaunted, Wellesley then demonstrated a textbook deployment across the east bridge, shuttling infantry battalions through Spinoza. A Guards battalion bravely advanced forward and formed square between the vineyards and the woods, preventing the French cavalry from interfering while two regiments of cavalry calmly crossed the river behind them. Picking their way across slowly and disordered, the cavalry took nearly two hours to form up safely on the western bank; the Guards paid for this vital time in blood, being reduced to 30% strength. A heavy French assault on them by two line battalions was repulsed, but Napoleon had his Grenadiers to hand and they charged the Guards, exploiting their disorder and finally breaking them.

Pressure builds...
The Grenadiers could do no more though – they found themselves facing two regiments of British cavalry keen to avenge the slaughter of their comrades in kind, and had no option but to form to receive cavalry, their flanks secured by the vineyards and the woods. A Léger battalion defended the woods though, and more Léger lining the edge of the vineyards stymied the British cavalry – they desperately needed infantry support to force the matter, and there seemed to be none to be had.

Napoleon still had a secure hold on San Antonio, and the British cavalry appeared powerless to intervene – any attempt to move further north around the French flank would have exposed them to ferocious fire from his 12pds batteries. A stalemate seemed to have broken out, although the French commander was acutely aware of the threat posed by the British brigade still doggedly marching towards his undefended right flank.

Suddenly, to Napoleon’s horror, Highlanders were pouring out of San Truco and across the D’Oro! In perfect order, a battalion emerged on the north bank and formed square to protect the crossing while their comrades followed – the French Light Cavalry were powerless to interfere. The Highlanders’ canny commander had realised that the villagers on the far bank must have an easy way to get to and from church, and thought to dip his toe in the water – there was a ford, right below the old abbey!

The British are across!
At the same time, British RHA galloped up to the dense woods to the left of the crossing and poured canister into the unfortunate Léger defending it. Seeing their opportunity, the 95th Rifles were quick to move up and joined the gunners in flaying the woods with lead. The Voltigeurs’ nerve finally collapsed under the sustained fire, and they retreated, shattered. The 95th rushed into the woods and prepared to assault San Antonio.

Pinned by the enemy cavalry, the French Grenadiers could only watch helplessly as British infantry also struck decisively into the vineyards, evicting the defending Léger. A perfectly-coordinated assault then erupted against San Antonio, with Highlanders charging in from the south and the 95th Rifles across the river; even a raw conscript battalion scented victory and attacked bravely from the vineyards. Overwhelmed, the defenders were ejected.

San Antonio falls
Although Napoleon still had most of his force intact, it was in no position to retake the village. British artillery had now unlimbered on the hills to the west, and were firing unopposed into the exposed French lines as more riflemen and fusiliers forded the D’Oro north of Puente Negro. Napoleon had run out of time and options – a withdrawal north before the enemy could exploit their victory and cut him off was his only choice.

Wellesley could justly celebrate – although he had lost most of three battalions of infantry, and many other units had empty ranks at parade that evening, he had out-foxed Napoleon. The Frenchman’s losses were light, but his reputation had suffered much more serious damage!

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